IMR: 1999: May: 17 —  Monday, 11:44 p.m. (HK)
IS Office, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, Wanchai, Hong Kong, China

It's not even midnight and the rest of the staff has called it a night. Everyone was relieved to finish so early.

Me? I'm waiting for a few megabytes of pictures to upload to our server in Honolulu at a blazing-fast 33.6k. I've really got to start doing this stuff earlier in the evening.

So I'm alone in the office, pausing often to admire the lights of Hong Kong blinking before me.

[ Hong Kong Skyline ]Jesus, the view we have... it's almost criminal. We're just the grunts working behind the scenes, but our office at the far end of this enormous convention center looks right out over the harbor. I'd been working for a day and a half before I even looked up, but boy was I impressed when I did.

I guess it's obvious I replaced the memory card for the digital camera. I justified it by saying it would still work in the new camera I plan to pick up while I'm out here. Turns out two of my coworkers also have digicams on their Hong Kong shopping lists, so we'll probably make a morning of it after the meeting closes.

Anyway, since the Convention Center is on the edge of Wanchai — formerly the city's infamous red-light district, but now a non-stop bustling retail and commercial center — we were within walking distance of a well-known cluster of computer stores. Since we were short floppies and power transformers absent in the office on Saturday, David and I ventured out into the streets on our first official excursion outside the venue.

My first impression? Grossly humid. Walking out the door was like diving into a vat of lukewarm chicken entrails. I felt like I gained four pounds everytime I inhaled the heavy air.

[ Wanchai ]Although private cars are more the exception than the norm, the overabundance of taxi cabs and double-decker buses still allow the city to be rather pedestrian unfriendly. There were three major thoroughfares between us and the computer center, and crossing each required finding the nearest pedestrian bridge.

There are walking bridges everywhere. You can literally walk for miles without ever touching the ground. Even though each building, each block is obviously owned by different companies, there's a hodgepodge network of bridges connecting nearly all of them at the fifth or sixth floor.

One of the meeting delegates called it "one big human Habitrail," aptly comparing the maze of the city to those ubiquitous hamster accomodations.

We weren't sure exactly where the center was, but we knew immediately when we were getting closer. That's because there were people selling laser printers and MD players on the sidewalk, and kids running around on the street selling internet access.

No joke. In Mexico they sell flimsy paper flowers. Anwhere else you'll find jewelry or hot dogs or candles or baskets. But in Hong Kong? The hustlers on the street are fast-talking, well-stocked Radio Shacks.

When we finally found the place, we were just floored by how crowded it was. This computer center was actually a little mall, packed to the gills with tiny, independently-run shops. One window was filled with modems and network cards, another had an impressive selection of flat-screen LCD monitors, yet another displayed questionably packaged copies of Windows 2000, Photoshop and anything else a geek with lax ethics could possibly want.

Finally I found a memory card and PCMCIA adapter for HK$800, about US$109. Even though I knew better, I couldn't help but gasp when I saw the total in the local currency on the credit card slip.

We decided to grab a bite before going back. And in a slip of judgement that baffles me even now, we ducked into a McDonald's.

I could find very little difference between that McDonald's and any of the few hundred I'd popped in and out of in my lifetime. The only uniquely local menu item was a "McPepper" sandwich, which looked too scary to try.

Then it was back to work. Like tonight, hours of cropping, tweaking, coding and uploading. I got back to the hotel at 2:30 a.m., the alarm set as usual for 6 a.m.

Last night, during the brief break between the internal administrative meetings (arguably the most stressful part for most of the staff) and the big flashy International General Meeting, David, Baron, Charlie and I took advantage of the few hours of downtime to hunt down food beyond the reaches of the hotel district.

David and I remembered seeing a steak house during our computer center errand, so we headed there first.

As it turned out, despite having one of the larger neon signs visible on the street, the restaurant itself turned out to be quite literally a hole in the wall. The fact that the place was completely empty, and that the manager came all the way out onto the sidewalk to try and get is to come in were both sufficient evidence that we should eat elsewhere.

So we hopped a cab and headed to a little club and restaurant district called Lan Kwai Fong.

The drive there, like much of this city itself, defied description. We jumped onto and off of highways, took odd turns seemingly at random, and chugged straight up a steep hill only to plummet back down the other side. I began to realize that while most roads were clearly built as one-lane thoroughfares, drivers here put a lot of skill and effort to doubling or even tripling their capacities.

One lane rose and turned and spiraled, at times seeming to bring us back to the same point several times, only at different elevations. I felt for a moment like the cab was a steel marble caught in one of those elaborate but pointless steel mazes in a pinball machine.

Finally we were there.

[ Lan Kwai Fong ]Lan Kwai Fong was a lot like what I imagined parts of Hong Kong would be like, but that didn't mean it was any less impressive. Narrow, narrow cobblestone streets, with hills and curves that would rival those in San Francisco. It felt like a maze of alleys, but all brightly lit, and the storefronts were so fancy they could've been on 5th Avenue.

The restaurant we finally settled on was picked almost at random, based more on the fancy engraving on the window than the posted menu. When we passed it on the street it immediately caught my eye, because the entire restaurant — from the tables to the bar to the kitchen — was efficiently wedged into a lot that was literally fifteen feet wide but maybe a hundred feet deep.

It was an Italian place, and a very good one at that. It was also the first actual meal I'd eaten since I got here.

When we had scraped our plates clean, we headed back out into the thick humid air. Motivation was rather lacking to return to work just then, so we just decided to walk a bit.

We ended up walking maybe two miles, most of it along covered bridges far above the street. At one point we came up along a few buildings that were still under construction, and I finally figured out what I had actually seen from a distance during the drive from the airport.

[ Bamboo ]Now, when I got my first look at the city's monstrous buildings, I noticed a lot of them were covered with something that looked like grass. It was, in fact, a thick mat of bamboo, held together with wide rubber cords and covered with green plastic netting.

David explained that here, they use tons and tons of bamboo instead of ladders and scaffolding. I guess it's actually cheaper, though definitely not safer. Indeed, the buildings we were looking at were encased in it all the way up, often 30 or 40 stories high. David said construction workers simply hang from the stuff on ropes... not exactly the epitome of industrial safety.

We grabbed a cab before we could get too lost. Once again it was back to the grind.

And I'm too tired to wait any more. I'll finish uploading in the morning.

© Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: · Created: 17 May 1999 · Last Modified: 19 May 1999